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The Ten Greatest Yalies Who Never Were
From Dink Stover to Niles Crane, some of our most prominent alumni live in the alternate universe of fiction.

In the world of fiction, the right detail about a character can convey meaning with great economy. We know—or think we know—what it means when we are told that a character wears a tweed blazer or drives a Maserati or comes from Iowa. But what does it mean when a character goes to—or went to—Yale? It depends. A Yale pedigree might be used simply to denote intelligence and drive, or it might signify someone who holds too many cards in life and needs to be knocked down a peg by a plucky underdog.

Surveying the realms of novels, films, television, comic strips, and even our own pages, we found a number of fictional characters—some major, some minor—identified as Yalies. Here, in no particular order, are ten who have made a lasting mark on our popular culture—for better or worse.


Frank Merriwell

In the days when the phrase “Yale man” conjured up an image of a solid, athletic fellow who played fair and came from a good family, Frank Merriwell was an ideal for many American boys—an unequivocal paragon of virtue who had, as one reviewer put it, “a body like Tarzan’s and a head like Einstein’s.” In short, he was the kind of hero that grown-ups resent but boys adore. Gilbert Patten, using the pen name Burt L. Standish, produced some 200 Merriwell novels under the aegis of Street & Smith’s Tip Top Weekly series from 1896 to 1916. The series sold as many as 200,000 copies a week, making Merriwell the most popular dime-novel hero of his day, and people of a certain age knew what it meant to call someone “a real Frank Merriwell.” Merriwell also turned up on radio from 1946 to 1949 when NBC aired The Adventures of Frank Merriwell on Saturday mornings. Neither the novels nor the radio show were very specific about their Yale setting, except when Frank was called upon to give Harvard or Princeton a good thrashing.


John Humperdink Stover

Like Merriwell, “Dink” Stover was born in a series of books for boys, the Lawrenceville books by Owen Johnson, Class of 1900. But Johnson had more on his mind than boyish exploits when he wrote Stover at Yale in 1911. Sure, Dink wrestles for his freshman class during the annual Fence Rush, plays heroically on the football team, and goes to Mory’s, but Stover is really about how Dink expands his mind beyond the shallow concerns of his prep-school set—not in the classroom, but through conversation with bright but less exalted fellow students who aren’t likely to be on the Bones tap list. Johnson was arguing—half a century before his time—that Yale should be a meritocracy, where extracurriculars and social activities are given their due, but where intellectual life is also nurtured. As for Dink, he gets to have his cake and eat it too. Though it looks for some time that he will be blackballed by the senior societies for broadening his horizons, in the end he receives Tap Day’s highest honor: last man tapped for Bones.


Tom Buchanan ’15

A snob, a racist, and a bully who cheats on his wife and breaks his mistress’s nose, The Great Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan is the dark side of the Yale football hero. Even his wife Daisy describes him as “a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking specimen.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s narrator calls Buchanan “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax … I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” Buchanan, who was played by Bruce Dern in the 1974 film of Gatsby, is made to stand for all the ills of a class-conscious Eastern society that quashes Gatsby’s American dream. But Fitzgerald, a Princeton man, didn’t have it in for all Yalies—the narrator, a sensitive bond trader named Nick Carraway, is a second-generation Yale graduate and a member of Buchanan’s unnamed senior society.


Sherman McCoy

If Buchanan represented the excesses of the 1920s, Tom Wolfe’s Sherman McCoy was intended as an exemplar of New York in the “greed is good” 1980s. In The Bonfire of the Vanities, McCoy (Tom Hanks in the film version) is what Wolfe calls a “Master of the Universe” on the trading floor of Pierce & Pierce. A product of the Buckley School, St. Paul’s, and Yale, with a Park Avenue apartment about to appear in Architectural Digest, he seems to lead a charmed life as he walks his young daughter to school: “As they crossed Park Avenue, he had a mental picture of what an ideal pair they made. Campbell, the perfect angel in a private-school uniform; himself, with his noble head, his Yale chin, his big frame, and his $1,800 British suit, the angel’s father, a man of parts; he visualized the admiring stares, the envious stares, of the drivers, the pedestrians, of one and all.” Naturally, he is headed for a fall, and when it comes he is neither as ruthless as Tom Buchanan nor as upright as Dink or Frank—just achingly, embarrassingly human.


C. Montgomery Burns ’14

Thanks to the Harvard-infested writing staff of The Simpsons, Yale’s Class of 1914 can claim one of television’s greatest cartoon villains. A far cry from Tom Buchanan’s hulking physical specimen, Burns is notoriously weak and looks all of his 100-plus years, but he is still capable of malice that ranges from the petty (literally trying to take candy from a baby) to the grand (a scheme to block the sun’s rays from reaching Springfield so as to increase the demand for electricity from his nuclear power plant), to the perverse (collecting skins from endangered species). For all his faults, though, Burns is a loyal alumnus. He leads calisthenics at the power plant in a Yale letter sweater (though just what he lettered in is anyone’s guess), he attends the Harvard game in his private Pullman car, and he tries to bribe admissions officials in order to get his illegitimate middle-aged son (conceived at the Peabody Museum, incidentally) into the College. When informed that the price would be “an international airport,” though, he balks, crying “I’m not made of airports!” Burns is joined in the Yale Club of Springfield by Bob Terwilliger, aka Sideshow Bob, Bart Simpson’s erudite but murderous archenemy.


Michael J. Doonesbury

Neither hero nor villain, the protagonist of the eponymous comic strip Doonesbury is a kind of Everyman for Baby Boomers—and surely the longest-running Yale alumnus in fiction. In the early days, when Garry Trudeau ’70, ’73MFA launched the strip as Bull Tales in the Yale Daily News, Mike was a socially clueless “doone”—St. Paul’s slang for a “genial fool,” says Trudeau—from Tulsa, Oklahoma. He spent a decade or so frozen in time as a student, during which time he established a commune with his friends, tutored an inner-city child, and volunteered for the John Anderson campaign. He finally graduated—with classmates B.D., Zonker, Mark, and Boopsie—in the 1983 stage show Doonesbury: A Musical Comedy. His first job was in advertising, guiltily trying to sell Ronald Reagan to black voters and cigarettes to children. He married performance artist J.J. Caucus, with whom he has a precocious daughter, Alex. After J.J. left him, he joined the dot-com revolution in Seattle, where he now lives with Alex and his second wife Kim, drives an SUV, and votes Republican. A footnote: Technically, Doonesbury and his classmates graduated from the fictional and less prestigious Walden College, to which they evidently transferred when Trudeau made the jump from the Daily News to national syndication. But since the development office considers anyone who ever matriculated at Yale to be an alumnus, we’ll claim him.


Dr. Niles Crane

Yale graduate David Hyde Pierce ’81 has won nine Emmy nominations for his portrayal of Yale graduate Niles Crane, a foil for his Harvard-educated brother on the situation comedy Frasier. Meek, haughty, and a terrible snob, Niles has nonetheless won viewers’ affection, perhaps because of the uncharacteristic passion he has displayed for his father’s working-class English nurse since the first episode. Exacting in his tastes, he orders a latte with nutmeg and a brush of cinnamon in a coffee shop and a Stoli Gibson with three pearl onions in a bar. Like the Ivy schools from which they hail, Frasier and Niles seem indistinguishably arrogant and effete to the rest of the world but dwell forever on their differences: Niles is a Jungian, Frasier a Freudian. Niles did graduate work at Cambridge, Frasier at Oxford. Niles writes academic papers, Frasier hosts a call-in radio show. And they engage in one-upsmanship as creatively as any Cantab and Eli, as seen in this exchange:

Frasier: You know, this building isn’t as exclusive as you think—your doorman waved me through.
Niles: That’s because he knows you.
Frasier: Oh, fan of my show?
Niles: No, he lives in your building.


Andrea Zuckerman Vasquez

After only 30 years of coeducation, the “Yale woman” has not yet become a staple of fiction like her male counterpart. But when Yale women are found, their “Yaleness” almost invariably means something more positive than a man’s: Yale women are typically smart, attractive, and virtuous. On the teen television drama Beverly Hills 90210, Andrea Zuckerman (played by Gabrielle Carteris) was the nice, smart, poor girl on a show full of spoiled princesses, working hard in classes and on the school newspaper in hopes of fulfilling her dream of going to Yale. With the help of nice rich boy Brandon Walsh, her colleague on the school paper, she became popular and still made valedictorian and was accepted to Yale. But since it would have been difficult for her to stay in the story line while away in New Haven—06520 is a long way from 90210—she was forced to attend the fictional California University with the rest of the cast so that she could care for her ailing grandmother. It was only after Andrea married Jesse Vasquez—who got a job at the Yale Law School, his alma mater—that she was able to transfer to New Haven.


Jamie Stemple Buchman

For seven years, viewers of the situation comedy Mad About You dissected the marriage of Yale graduate Jamie Buchman (Helen Hunt) and her husband Paul (Paul Reiser). Like Andrea Zuckerman, Jamie was not a child of privilege: She grew up in New Haven, the daughter of a butcher. After a college career in which we are told she had “two majors and seven boyfriends,” she moved to New York and the public-relations business. There she met Paul, an NYU grad and documentary filmmaker who regularly marveled at his wife’s Yale pedigree. Beautiful, funny, and (mostly) successful in her career, Jamie was called “the most perfect woman that television has ever produced” by one critic. But Jamie was not without foibles: In one episode, it was revealed that she never paid back her student loans.


Dave Henderson ’43

A fictional Yalie who sprang illicitly from this magazine’s very pages, Dave Henderson was an irrepressible bon vivant and all-around ugly American known to us by his regular submissions to the Class of ’43 alumni notes in the 1980s. Henderson traveled the world aboard his yacht with his wife Marge, frequently issuing invitations for classmates to come aboard when they docked in Portofino or the Cote d’Azur. A sample entry: “Enclosing a color snapshot of his 54-room palacio in Cancun, Mexico, Dave Henderson writes: ‘Marge and I are heartsick that in July, pirates boarded our motor-yacht ”Triunfador II“ as it was passing through Malacca Straits, stripped it clean, and then opened the sea valves, sending the most comfortable cruiser we ever owned to the bottom of the sea. Two of our crew were killed scuffling with the boarding party, and the remaining ten were put off in lifeboats with little water and no food. They drifted 36 hours before being rescued. Fortunately, Marge and I had disembarked in Dar es Salaam and flown back to Johannesburg to check on some of our investments.’” It was only when one of Dave’s missives was quoted in the New Yorker that the Yale Alumni Magazine staff figured out that Henderson existed only in the mind of class secretary Jim Nelson. Once the jig was up, Nelson attempted to kill off Henderson in his column, but the magazine declined to publish it. He ended up writing the whole story for Smithsonian, including the tale of Dave’s sad end: He was hit by a speeding mango truck in Panama. A note to class secretaries: Don’t try it. We check now.  the end





“…But I Play One on TV”
Yale students and graduates continue to be well represented in the ranks of fiction. Take our quiz and find out how much you really know about your imaginary fellow alums.


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